As a parent, it can be heartbreaking to watch your child feel like an outcast. For some children, making friends (being “popular”) seemingly comes as naturally as breathing. For others – mere mortals – however, making friends can be a very real cause for anxiety. Unfortunately, reassuring your teen struggling socially that everyone encounters similar problems rarely helps. This, in fact, is a result of biology: a teenager’s brain is more likely to experience minor setbacks as the end of the world. That said, there are several tips that parents should keep in mind when dealing with a teen struggling socially.
The first step to remember is that everyone is human. The children who seem popular do so with a great amount of effort – and go to even further lengths to hide the effort they put in. Having difficulty (or perceived difficulty, since friendships are relative) making friends isn’t a character flaw; building relationships is deeply individual to everyone. One child may prefer to be part of a large group, while another may choose several closer ones. There is no wrong way to make friends.
The Autism Spectrum and Social Struggles
Social skills are the rules, customs, and abilities that guide our interactions with other people and the world around us. In general, people tend to “pick up” social skills in the same way they learn language skills: naturally and easily. Over time they build a social “map” of how to act in situations and with others.
There is an unspoken truth: children with a neurodevelopmental disorder (such as Autism Spectrum Disorder or Asperger’s Syndrome) can often find it difficult to form friendships. Many neurodevelopmental disorders cause a child to take everything literally – as such, puns, multi-step instructions, and vagueness may go over a child’s head. As a result, it is painfully common for overworked teachers to be frustrated and cruel peers to not take the time to learn your child’s quirks. Often, children with neurodevelopmental disorders also have coping mechanisms that can seem illogical – and reactions that can be out of proportion. Some teens with autism may be unable to maintain eye contact. Others may become easily overwhelmed by loud noises or strong smells. Reading social cues can also pose problems. Unfortunately, impatience can lead other children to not take the time to learn your child’s personality traits. And this is precisely where building social skills can be beneficial.
Options for Improving Social Skills
Teens with autism struggle with the basic parts of socializing, which are usually the foundation of friendships. As humans, neurotypical individuals crave socialization and teens with autism do, too–it’s just that it’s harder for them to get it. Especially in adolescence (where most social skill-building happens), making friends is a challenge for those who are even a little “different”. If a teen continues to get rejected after attempting social interaction, it can be hard for them to be motivated to try anymore.
Luckily, there are many therapeutic options that help teens with autism develop the skills needed to build and maintain meaningful relationships with others.
Social Skills Therapy: Social skills therapy encompasses a range of approaches that, often in conjunction with other forms of therapy, help build interpersonal bonds. Some children find they are too shy to leave their comfort zone, while others are afraid of being misunderstood. Yet others find it difficult to pay attention to a conversation. Whatever the case, with the help of therapy, the problem can be bettered. Social skills therapy is designed to help your child form meaningful connections with peers. Depending on the particular neurodevelopmental disorder and its severity, therapy can include a variety of methods with the same end goal – making your child comfortable in their own skin. Social skills therapy promotes well-being through building up a sense of self-worth. Humans are social beings; having friends to share moments with is crucial to maintaining mental health. Through social skills therapy, your child will learn their strengths and weaknesses.
Talk Therapy: This is a traditional form of therapy that deals mostly with talking through behaviors, experiences, and attitudes. The therapist leads the individual through talking about their insecurities and fears with the goal of making them hold less power. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy that can be effective autism treatment for children and adults. During CBT sessions, people learn about the connections between feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. This may help to identify the thoughts and feelings that trigger negative behaviors.
Group Therapy: This therapy is usually used after an individual has made at least some progress in social interaction through other forms of therapy. Once they’re ready for it, group therapy gives a teen with autism the chance to experience a positive social interaction in a safe setting. Working with their peers and a trained professional, group therapy gives teens the opportunity to practice the social skills they are working to develop in a supportive environment.
Residential Treatment: Utilizing residential treatment to help your child can assist them in overcoming their struggle. The first step to therapy is to provide psychiatric stabilization, if necessary – if your child is in the middle of an episode, their safety is the top priority. Then comes the fun part: adventure! Through wilderness therapy and adventure-based therapy, your child learns both self-reliance and teamwork. This, however, occurs through communication – your child begins forming connections without even realizing it. Once the groundwork is laid, your child can continue on to feel safe opening up to their new friends.
Having a supportive network to rely on, as well as a positive group with similar interests, facilitates healing. By engaging in enjoyable activities together, lasting bonds are formed. In conjunction with working on their social skills, your child will be well-prepared for the future. The friendships formed through this type of approach don’t end with the therapy: in fact, they last a lifetime.
Stepping Outside Their Comfort Zone
Chances are, your teen struggling socially already knows the most important step to making friends but, depending on how shy they are, won’t want to admit it. Making friends happens by expanding the comfort zone – by enrolling in afterschool activities, joining clubs, and exploring passions, a child can meet new people with similar interests. Moreover, new experiences can often allow a child to find themselves and can greatly shape their future paths. Routines are an important part of daily life for teens with autism. However, sometimes those routines can be limiting.
By stepping outside the familiar, it is possible for a teen struggling socially to discover something they did not know existed.
You can begin to encourage your child to step outside of their comfort zone by paying attention to their interests. They are more likely to be comfortable in a new setting if they already have something in common with the group. If they love animals, spending some time at a local animal shelter or joining the FFA can give them a group who already appreciates their interests. Some teens may also benefit from social stories and planning. New experiences naturally bring the unexpected with them, which can cause stress or anxiety. By talking with your teen about what they can expect during a new activity, you can help them feel more prepared. This could include meeting new teachers or classmates, familiarizing them with a new building, or talking with them about who they can go to if they need help.
Another tip for parents to help their teen struggling socially is to make sure to build their child’s self-esteem. In many cases, a child who thinks they have few friends enters a vicious cycle: their self-esteem lowers because they feel alone, and feeling alone makes it harder to find ways to remedy the situation. To help break this pattern, a parent must find ways to make their child feel confident again. Praising your child’s successes is vital, as well as maintaining a healthy routine. Regular sleep, nutritious diet, and exercise help a teenager feel happier and healthier – the building blocks of confidence and self-esteem.
Those are just a few of the options available to help you answer the question, “How can I help my teenage son make friends?” If you truly believe your child is struggling, it’s essential to seek out a professional.
Seven Stars Can Help
Seven Stars’ treatment model is a revolutionary hybrid. By combining the assessment aspects of a multidisciplinary assessment center, the experiential learning of an adventure program, and the therapy and classroom academics of residential treatment, our program provides a very comprehensive solution for teens struggling with neurodevelopmental disorders.
At Seven Stars, students have a myriad of opportunities to create and rebuild social skills. From the beginning, your child will be placed in a residential, milieu environment with teachers, mentors and peers. Then, through adventure programming, students will learn to trust and depend on other peers in order to successfully complete each obstacle. For more information please call (844) 601-1167.
Since 2003, Dr. Gordon Day has passionately helped young people with a wide range of family, emotional, social, neurodevelopmental and behavioral problems. Gordon’s mission has been to help people find their strengths and their own passion for living a full and rewarding life. He is particularly sensitive to the pressures, frustrations and disappointments that adolescents face that can sometimes cause them and their loved ones to want to withdraw and throw their hands up in despair.
Dr. Day knows that you really have to understand where a student is coming from and understand their patterns of strengths and needs. When we truly know an individual and their struggles, only then can we truly help.
Dr. Day has pioneered the use of outdoor therapy activities and outdoor living as a dynamic and effective therapeutic tool for learning, confidence building and skill building. His programs provide effective, supportive and encouraging environments that help students find their strengths and power.